ANAHEIM — After the Angels were sidelined for the fourth time this season in a frustrating loss on Saturday, two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani quickly made sure it wouldn’t happen for the second straight year.
Ohtani smashed his MLB-leading 36th home run in the first inning on Sunday, sparking a big day on offense as Luis Rengifo also took two deep shots and Andrew Velazquez got his first shot of the season in a 7-5 win over the Pirates at Angel Stadium. It completed a solid homestand for the Angels, who improved 6-3 to 51-49.
“It was definitely a good time at home,” said Angels manager Phil Nevin. “The guys are responding well. They understand that everything is ahead of us.”
They won back-to-back series against the Yankees and Pirates after losing two of three games to the Astros during the All-Star break. The Angels will now look to capitalize on that momentum on their crucial three-city road trip to Detroit, Toronto and Atlanta as the August 1 trade deadline approaches. The Halos are four games behind the Blue Jays for the third and final AL wild card spot, making their three-game stint in Toronto crucial for a team looking to avoid being a salesman and not move Ohtani in return.
“It’s like the playoffs for us right now,” Velazquez said. “So winning this series was very important for this road trip.”
Ohtani, who is rumored to be a transfer if the Angels are eliminated from the competition, is expected to open the series opener in Toronto. On Sunday, he demonstrated his immense power with a lowliner for a solo attack in the first inning against Pirates right-hander Mitch Keller. Ohtani worked the count to the max before hurling a cutter over the midfield fence for his first home run since Monday. According to Statcast, it exited the club at a low launch angle of 19 degrees and reached an estimated altitude of 410 feet. He’s on track to hit 58 home runs this season.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a ball hit like that – maybe a golf ball,” Nevin said. “I thought he positioned himself in the middle. I really did. Or maybe it goes over his head or hits the wall. But it disappeared into the trees. Every day he does something different to impress you.”
His solo shot set the tone for a strengthening offense on offense and leveled the game after left-hander Tyler Anderson hit a solo home run to Bryan Reynolds in the first frame. The Angels took the lead in the second through an RBI single from Eduardo Escobar and pulled away by a fifth run in four runs.
“It was one big inning for us and that was sort of the MO for us last week as we played well,” said Nevin. “That’s why it was a big inning last night when we let them load with no one outside. But we reacted really well.”
Velazquez and Rengifo connected with back-to-back blasts to open the inning before Taylor Ward added an RBI single and Matt Thaiss delivered a sacrificial fly. Rengifo gave the Angels a safe run with a solo shot against left-back Angel Perdomo in the sixth round. It was Rengifo’s third multihomer game of his career and the second time he had scored from either side of the plate.
He was the last Angel to pull off that feat on September 16, 2022 against the Mariners. Just like last season, Rengifo’s second half was heated. He’s posting .302/.388/.674 with five home runs and eight RBIs in 15 games in July.
“The most important thing right now is trying to help the team win and doing my job,” said Rengifo. “We feel really good as a team. We just have to stay together. We just have to keep winning games. Our goal is to get into the playoffs.”
Those extra runs proved crucial, as Anderson went out for the seventh time with 86 pitches and a six-run lead, but gave up a single, a double and a walk before being substituted for reliever Jacob Webb. A run was scored by an improper throw from Thaiss to Webb before Carlos Santana made a two-run double to make it a two-run game. But the Angels wiped out the rest of the game when Carlos Estévez made his 23rd save with a scoreless ninth.
“It meant a lot to us, especially the way we ended the first half,” said Estévez. “We figured out a way to turn it on during homestand. We feel really good.”